Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

The Hills of Refuge: A Novel online

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fighting hers. Her round, mellow accent sounded in his ears like dream
music. The touch of her delicate hand remained, and thrilled him through
and through.


At dusk he was back at the old hotel. His strange happiness amounted to
ecstasy. Sam Lee, at the cigar case and counter, the pigeon-holed
key-rack behind him, filled him with a desire to laugh. How vain and
empty the fellow's curling mustache and damp, matted hair made him look!
Charles went into the dining-room for his supper. He was quite hungry
and enjoyed the meal. When it was over he sauntered out on the veranda.
Some one in the parlor overhead was playing the piano. It was an old
instrument and the notes had a jingling, metallic sound. Through an open
window came the merry, jesting voice of Sam Lee chatting familiarly with
a drummer in flashy attire. Up the walk from the station came a negro
pushing a two-wheeled truck laden with a mammoth trunk. The negro was
humming a tune; his torn shirt was falling from a bare, black shoulder.
Catching sight of a colored waiter idling at a window of the
dining-room, he uttered a loud guffaw and continued to laugh as he
trudged up the walk. Charles started out again to see the town. This
time he strolled along the principal residential street. Many of the
houses stood back on wide lawns. All had porches or verandas. Through
the front windows he caught sight of families at supper. On one lawn a
group of children was playing. Homes, homes! what a beautiful thing a
home was! Why had he not realized this and made one for himself when he
had a chance?

Turning back, he went to the hotel and up to his room. It was nine
o'clock, but he was not sleepy. The room was close and warm, and he
undressed and lay down. For hours he lay awake, thinking, thinking of
the past and opening windows of hope for the future. Should he write to
William? No, it would do no good and might lead to complications.
William and Celeste might as well think of him as dead, and teach the
child to forget him. A letter from him might upset his brother. He had
promised to disappear, and he would keep his word. Besides, the budding
joy of the new life depended upon a thorough detachment from the old. It
was midnight when he fell asleep. It was early dawn when he waked. He
knew that further sleep was impossible and he got up. Why should he wait
longer? Why not be on his way to the Rowland farm? The idea appealed to
him. He would walk the five miles through the country instead of hiring
a conveyance, as he at first intended. He could have his bag sent out

Dressing and descending to the office, he found Sam Lee asleep in a big
chair behind the counter. Hearing his step, the clerk waked and stood

"Early bird," Sam said, drowsily. "I guess you're anxious to get out to
Rowland's. Miss Mary said she had hired you. She was tickled powerfully.
There is a drummer that I got to call now. He is off for a mountain
trip. His breakfast will be ready in twenty minutes and I'll have yours
fixed at the same time. Have you hired a rig?"

Charles explained that he intended to walk, and made arrangements to
have his bag forwarded. The sun was just rising into view as he fared
forth, following the clerk's directions as to the way along the
main-traveled road toward the east.

The five miles were soon traversed. It was barely eight o'clock when he
came into sight of the Rowland home. It was a large, old-fashioned frame
building, having two floors. It had once been painted white as to the
weatherboarding and green as to the shutters, but time and rain had
reduced the walls to gray and the shutters to a dark, nondescript color.
There was a wide veranda which had lost part of its original balustrade,
and had broken, sagging steps and tall, fluted columns, one of which was
out of plumb, owing to the decay of the timbers at its base. Behind the
house Charles noticed a rather extensive stable and barns, as well as
several cabins which had been occupied by former slaves in the day when
the place had seen the height of its prosperity. There was a lawn in
front, or the remains of one, and the brick walk was moss-grown and
weed-covered save for a worn path in the center; what was once a
carriage drive from a wide gate on one side had quite disappeared under
a wild growth of bushes.

As he entered the gate a gray-haired man of about seventy years of age,
with a book and a manuscript under a handless arm, came out of the house
and stood on the veranda, staring blandly at him. He wore a narrow black
necktie, and a long broad-cloth frock coat, with trousers of the same
material. The coat was threadbare, the trousers baggy and frayed at the
bottoms of the legs. He stepped forward and smiled agreeably as he
extended his hand to Charles, who was now ascending the creaking steps.

"Mr. Brown, I believe," he said. "My daughter told me about you and we
were expecting you. I am Mr. Rowland. She has gone over to a neighbor's
for a minute or two. Will you sit down here or go inside? It is about as
comfortable here in the morning as anywhere about the house."

"I'll sit here, if you please," Charles answered, now noticing for the
first time a deep scar under the old gentleman's right eye, which had
been caused by a Northern minie ball.

"Yes, we were quite pleased to secure your help," Rowland went on,
taking a chair and resting his book and manuscript on his gaunt knees.
"We were really about to despair. You see," holding up his handless
wrist, "that I am quite incapacitated for rough work, so I spend my time
over my books and writing. I am preparing a rather extensive genealogy
of the Rowland family. You may not be aware of it, sir, but it is
certainly a fascinating pursuit. You never know, till you begin such
research, how many of a name are in existence. I have written letters to
more than two thousand persons, and had answers from a good many of more
or less importance. What seems strange to me is that most persons are so
indifferent on the subject. It seems to me the more worldly goods or
standing they have the less they care about who they were at the

"It must be interesting," Charles agreed, vaguely pleased to find that
the old gentleman was so kindly disposed toward him.

"It certainly is," Rowland went on. "I always ask strangers the
question, and I'll put it to you. Do you happen to have met in your
rounds (I understand that you have been a showman) any one by my name?"

"I can't recall any one just now," Charles said.

"Well, I'm not at all surprised," Rowland went on, "for the name is not
a common one except in certain spots. Now they are thick in some of the
Southern states. There was a governor and a general, but my daughter
says all that sounds like bragging of our blood. She was looking over my
work one day and said that I had not been so careful to record Rowland
blacksmiths and carpenters as Rowland lawyers, doctors, and the like;
but I reckon there is a good reason for that discrepancy, and that is
that the lower classes don't really know much about their forebears. It
is when a man starts to rise in the world, or is about to go down, that
he sees the value of family history. My daughter will tease me. The last
thing she said when she started away at breakfast was that I must not
bore you with this work of mine if you came while she was out. I see her
now, coming across the field over there. She is worried about her two
brothers. They have been away for several days, and she went over to
Dodd's to see if she could hear anything of them. Keep your seat, sir. I
should have offered you some fresh water before this. I'll have Aunt
Zilla, our cook, bring some out to you."

Glad of a chance to change the subject, Charles made no objection, and
Rowland stalked, in his slipshod way, into the sitting-room. There he
met the servant and gave the order for the water.

Charles heard a veritable African snort. "Who, me? You mean me, Marse
Andy? Is you los' yo' senses? You 'spec' me ter draw water en' fetch it
in fer dat new fiel'-hand wid clothes like er house-painter? What's he,
anyhow? He gwine ter do his work, en' I'll do mine. Huh, I say!"

"Well, then, I'll have to do it with one hand," Charles was mortified to
overhear. "This is his first day, Zilla. He has not set in yet. Until he
does he is a guest under our roof."

"Well, let 'im set in now, den," Zilla cried. "He ain't de preacher; he
ain't de school-teacher; he ain't nuffen but er rousterbout circus man."

Charles heard the sound of receding footsteps toward the rear of the
house, and the soft slur of the old man's tread as he returned.

"Aunt Zilla appears to be busy back there," he said, blandly. "We'll
walk around to the well and draw it ourselves, if you don't mind."

Deeply chagrined, Charles accepted the offer. The well was at the
kitchen door and Charles lowered the bucket into it. As he was drawing
it up Aunt Zilla, who was a portly yellow woman of forty, came out with
a tin dipper. It looked as if she partially regretted her show of
temper, for she had a softened look as she extended the dipper to her

Rowland filled it and offered it to Charles, but he declined to drink
first, and as a matter of mere form Rowland drank and then refilled the

"Young miss is ercomin'," Zilla said, turning toward the front. "I
wonder is she done hear sumpin' erbout de boys? Lawd! Lawd! what dey
bofe comin' to?"

As she disappeared around the corner Rowland stroked his white goatee
and smiled wearily. "We have to handle her with care," he said. "She is
the only help we have now, and she threatens to leave us every day. She
is getting tyrannical. They are all like that."

They were returning to the veranda when Mary came in at the gate.

"Put the table things on the line to dry, Aunt Zilla; there is no time
to lose, if they are to be ironed to-day," Charles heard her ordering,
in a hurried and yet kind tone.

He noted that she wore a somewhat simpler dress than the day before, a
plain checked gingham, but it was most becoming, and her hat, a great
wide-brimmed one, woven from the inner husks of corn without adornment
of any sort, added to her rare, flushed beauty. Being in the shade of
the house, she took the hat off and held it in one hand while she
offered the other to Charles.

"So you didn't fail us," she said, but she seemed now to force the
exquisite smile which the day before had been so spontaneous. "I was
almost sure you'd come when I was talking to you at the store, but when
I got home and saw how desolate our place looked I began to fear it
would bore one who had traveled about a great deal, as you must have
done. Well, if you don't like it, I'll excuse you. It looks like things
simply will not go right, somehow." Her face had fallen into pensive
solemnity, her pretty lip was drawn tight across her fine teeth.

"But I do like it very, very much," Charles heard himself stammering. "I
am only afraid that I shall not be able to give thorough satisfaction
with my work."

"Oh, that will be all right!" Mary smiled a stiff smile again, while a
far-away look lay in her eyes.

"What is the matter, daughter?" Rowland asked, suddenly. "Have Lester &
Hooker been bothering you about that account again?"

"No, father, I met Mr. Hooker, but he did not say anything about it. You
know he agreed to give us another month."

"Then something else has happened," Rowland persisted, still staring

"No, nothing, father, nothing. I'm a little tired, that's all. Come, Mr.
Brown, I know father has not shown you your room yet."

They left the old gentleman on the veranda, eagerly scanning a page of
his manuscript, and Mary led Charles up the old-fashioned stairs with
its walnut balustrade and battered steps. She smiled as she explained
that the "Yankee soldiers" had occupied the house during the war, and
that no repairs had been made since. There were six bedrooms on the
floor they were now on, and the one at the end over the kitchen was to
be Charles's. She led him into it. It was very attractive. An
old-fashioned mahogany wardrobe stood against the wall near the single
window, which was draped with cheap cotton-lace curtains. There was a
walnut wash-stand with a white marble top holding a white bowl and
pitcher, and a plain mahogany bureau. There was an open fireplace which
was filled with boughs of cedar. Its hearth had just been whitewashed.
There was a table of old oak in the center of the room, holding some
books and an old-fashioned brass candlestick. On the white walls in
various sorts of frames hung some of the brilliant print pictures which
were popular in the South just after the war. In a corner stood a
tall-posted bed, which, with its snowy pillows and white counterpane,
had a most cool and inviting look.

"Do you really intend this for me?" Charles asked. "But you mustn't put
me here, you know. You have no idea the sort of bed I've been sleeping
in. If you have never seen a bunk in a circus freight-car - "

"All the more reason you should be comfortable here with us," Mary
interrupted. "As it is, I'm afraid you will want to quit us. It is
awfully, awfully dull and lonely out here - no amusements of any sort.
Your life must have been a very eventful and exciting one, and this, by
contrast, may be anything but pleasant."

"It is just what I want," he fairly pleaded now, as their probing eyes
met like those of two earnest children. "I am sick of the life I was
leading, while this - this somehow seems like - " He found himself unable
to formulate what he was trying to say, and she laughed merrily.

"I hope it is not due to your fibbing that you are all tangled up," she
said. "Well, let's go down-stairs. I've got to help Zilla get dinner
ready, and then I'll show you our corn and cotton. You won't want to
begin work till to-morrow morning, of course."

"But why?" he blandly inquired, as they were going down the stairs.

"Well," she returned, "people usually begin in the morning when they
hire out, and it will take you one afternoon at least to get the lay of
the land and see what is to be done."

"I feel that I ought to be at something right away," he said. "Besides,
you remember that you told me your crops were suffering for lack of

She laughed again. "I wonder if I have run across a real masculine
curiosity," she said. She paused on the step and faced him, and he had
again that magnetic sensation of nearness to her which he had
experienced at the store the day before. "You see," she continued, "out
here we have to drive men to work, negroes and whites, and you speak of
it as if it were a game to be played. I wonder if you really know what
you are about to tackle. The sun is hot enough some days to bake a
potato, and there is no sort of shade in our fields."

"I don't think I shall mind the sun a bit," he said. "It is much cooler
here than down in Florida where we were showing, and even there I
enjoyed the days we had to work in the open more than those spent on the

"Oh, well, we shall see," she said, smiling again. They were at the
veranda now, and she added: "Wait here and I'll see Aunt Zilla, and then
we'll walk down to the cotton-field that is suffering the most and I'll
give you a lesson in hoeing and weed-pulling. Then if you really are
daft about working, you may start after dinner."


Charles sat down on the veranda and Mary turned away. Rowland was bent
over his writing and did not look up, so deeply was he absorbed in what
he was recording. He had a small bottle of ink on the floor at his side,
into which he dipped an old pen which was so sharp at the point that it
kept sticking into the cheap paper he was using. Mary reappeared very
soon, now wearing her becoming hat and a great pair of cotton gloves.

"Father," she said, teasingly, as she stood beside him, a hand on his
threadbare coat at the shoulder, "I saw a list of men in the paper the
other day that were being sent to the chain-gang for all sorts of
crimes. There was a Jasper Rowland in the lot, and his son Thomas. Had
you not better write to them? Perhaps they may furnish an important link
in our history."

Rowland looked up and smiled indulgently at her and then at Charles.
"She is always poking fun at me like that," he said. "Of course there
are off-shoots from the main tree like those she mentions, but I assure
you, sir, that they are rare. Besides, such cases often come from
families who have once been high up in the world. I am afraid that the
idleness and affluence of the old slave period have left their stamp on
many of our best families. I know that my own boys - "

"Stop, father!" and Mary actually put her gloved hand over the old man's
lips. "You must not bring Kenneth and Martin into such a classification.
I know what you started to say, and you shall not to Mr. Brown. My
brothers are idle, fun-loving, and wild, but they are not dishonorable."

"Oh, well, have it your way," Rowland gave in. "I think they are all
right in many ways, but they are worrying the life out of you by the way
they are carrying on. It seems to me that if they had a high sense of
honor, they - "

"Now, Mr. Brown," Mary said, quickly, "I won't listen to what he is
saying. You'll get the idea presently that my poor brothers are worse
than thieves."

"Oh no," Charles tried to say, lightly, as they went down the steps and
turned toward the side of the house. "I'm sure I understand about your

To his surprise, Mary's face had clouded over. It seemed as if she were
about to shed tears, for her wondrous eyes were misty. He heard her
sigh, and she was silent for several minutes as they went down the path
toward the cotton-field. Presently she looked straight into his face.
She tried to smile, and then gave up the attempt with a little shake of
her head.

"I really am in great, great trouble over my brothers," she faltered. "I
didn't want to tell my father, for it will do no good and it seems to me
that he is already losing his natural love for them; but this morning I
heard from Mrs. Dodd that they were over at Carlin last night, cutting
up frightfully - drinking, gambling, and what not. Oh, I don't know how I
can bear much more of it. Do you know, Mr. Brown, that since my mother's
death these boys, although they are older than I am, have seemed almost
like sons of mine? I worry, worry, worry. I lie awake night after night
when they are away like this, and even when they are here I watch their
every look and tone to see if - if they are about to break out again.
I'll have gray hairs - I know I shall - and that very soon."

A keen pang of remorse passed through the listening wanderer. He was
recalling certain incidents in his own life, the anxiety and tears of
his own mother just prior to her death. For a moment he was almost
oblivious of the sweet face into which he was blankly staring. But his
expression must have been sympathetic, for Mary suddenly remarked:

"I don't know why I am talking so freely with you about them, Mr. Brown.
I really never mention my brothers to my best friends - their faults, I
mean - but here I am telling you the worst about them. You seem
wonderfully gentle and sympathetic and - and - " She choked up, wiped her
fluttering lips with her gloved hand and dropped her eyes.

"I want to aid you," he said, deeply moved, "and I will do everything in
my power. Look at me, Miss Rowland. I don't want to pass for better than
I am. I want to start right with you. The habits your brothers have were
once my own. I owe my wandering life to them. For a year I have been
free from the old habits. I hope I shall remain so. I sometimes feel
that I shall never, never fall back. I feel so now more strongly than I
ever did, because your trouble shows me so plainly how terribly wrong I

"Oh, it doesn't make any difference what you once were," Mary said,
earnestly. "It is what you are now that counts. I understand you better
than I did at first. I see why you are living as you are, away from
kindred and friends, and I am glad you told me. It is a great thing to
trample an old weakness underfoot and rise up on it. Oh, do you know,
what you say makes me hope that my brothers, too, may change! Oh, they
must, they must! They cannot go on as they are."

Nothing more was said till they reached the cotton-field, which was a
level fertile tract of land containing about ten acres. Beyond it lay
another tract about the same size, which was planted in corn, while
another smaller field adjoining was given over to wheat. Under a tree at
the side of the path lay some hoes, and Mary took one and gave him

"See, this is all you have to do," she began, lightly, going to the
first cotton-plant in the nearest row and cutting the weeds about it
with the hoe. "You can 'kill two birds with one stone' - loosen up the
earth's surface and destroy the weeds at the same time. I'm sure you
don't have to be shown which is the cotton."

"Oh no! I see that plainly," and with the other hoe Charles set in on
the next row, and side by side they worked forward.

"Splendid! splendid!" Mary cried, pausing and smiling at him from her
sweet, flushed face. "Surely you have used a hoe before this."

"Only once, in a little garden at a summer resort," he said. "Then it
was cabbages and beans."

"But you really are beating me!" she cried, "and it is better done. See!
I've left some and you haven't. Your row is as clean as a barn floor
before a dance, and your stroke is deep and firm."

They worked to the ends of the two rows and were about to start back
when an iron bell on a post at the kitchen door rang. They saw Zilla
with her hand on its rope, staring at them fixedly.

"That is for us," Mary explained. "Dinner is ready, and Aunt Zilla has a
fit when anybody's late. We all try to obey that bell. It was put there
long before the war. It was used - you see it is a large one - to call up
the slaves. My grandfather had a regular code of signals which he used
to communicate with his overseer. In that day there were negro
uprisings, slave runaways to be stopped, and all sorts of outlandish
things that are now out of date. Girls like me, for instance, never
worked in the field those days, but it is better this way. I know I am
stronger and more healthy than my mother was, and if I had less to worry
about I think I should be happier, for my mother was not a happy woman.
I am afraid that she and my father were not as well mated as they ought
to have been. I think the match was made by the parents on both sides, a
sort of marriage of convenience to tie some property together."

When they were nearing the kitchen door Charles was suddenly embarrassed
by the thought that he might be expected to dine with the family; he
felt that he was unfit to sit at table with them in his uncouth
clothing. Mary seemed to read his thoughts, for she said:

"Don't change your clothes. We have no ceremony here in the working
period. We have no time for style. Run up to your room and get the dust
off your face and hands, and come right down. Don't make Zilla mad, for
all you do."

Coming down, presently, Charles felt a little easier, for Mary was
already at the table in the same dress she had worn in the field. She
was drinking milk and eating hot biscuits and fried spring chicken.

"You see I didn't wait for you," she laughed, "and you must not wait for
any one in the future, either. When the bell rings sit down and eat. It
is the only way. Father is not coming, you see. He has struck another
Rowland, a loyalist in the Revolution. Do you know, father went all the
way to Charleston, South Carolina, last summer, to consult an old will.
He spent money we needed to pay farm-hands with, but he had a glorious
time. He was entertained in an old historic mansion which had belonged
to some of the Rowlands, and brought home photographs of it, and of old
tombstones and maps of the first settlers. Oh, he'll bore the life out
of you if you let him! He has never been sat down on but once. Old Judge
Warner, who went through the war with father, was with us overnight not
long ago, and after supper father got out his charts, books, coats of
arms and began. The judge listened for a while, then suddenly said:

"'Say, Andy, I'm going to be frank with you. I never have been
interested in my _own_ ancestry. Wouldn't it seem odd to you if I was
interested in _yours_?'"

Charles laughed heartily, for the girl had managed to put him quite at
his ease. Besides, he was ravenously hungry and Zilla had brought a big
platter of fried chicken and a plate heaping with hot biscuits and put

Online LibraryWill N. (Will Nathaniel) HarbenThe Hills of Refuge: A Novel → online text (page 8 of 25)